Benefits of Lactic Acid
Benefits of Lactic Acid
When we use the term “probiotics”, we are technically referring to a collection of specific strains of microorganisms, those which have a beneficial effect on our bodies (“probiotic” derives from the Greek “pro bios”, which means “for life”). The majority of these good bacteria are found in the gastrointestinal tract, and for the most part are “lactic acid bacteria”, belonging to the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium family. (Which is why these genus are found to be the prefix for most bacteria used in commercial probiotic products.)
Lactic Acid Bacteria
Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) are commonly used for the production of fermented foods (“starter”), and thus are also found in high numbers in most fermented drinks and foods. (Source)
LAB, when residing in the gut, serves many important functions “involving immune modulation, production of peroxides, acid and bacteriocins, and also proteins that alter epithelial permeability and bind to intestinal receptors for pathogens”. So, when the LAB becomes outnumbered by “bad” bacteria in the gut, and some form of disease occurs, often the approach to rectifying this problem is to administer commercially produced probiotics. And sometimes this has proven to be clinically effective; for example with treating ADHD, allergies, asthma, and Staph infections.
On the other hand, the antimicrobial substances (such as bacteriocins) produced by LAB can have a protective, antibiotic-like effect initially, but can later turn around and “eradicate their closest relatives and pave the way for a dysbiotic gut microbiota, resulting in other health problems”. (This is a subject covered in more detail in an earlier blog of mine: Are Probiotics Worthless?)
The essence of this dichotomy is that the LAB produce bacteriocins, along with a powerful form of H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide), which, while effective at killing gram-negative bacteria (those more intrinsically resistant to antibiotics), can also kill the closely related gram-positive bacteria. In fact, according to one clinical study, “only a few days after last oral intake of lactic acid bacteria in probiotic preparations, it is normally not possible to detect them within the gut, and permanent colonization of added probiotics has never been documented…Our experience is in line with published data showing that the already sparse numbers of lactic acid bacteria in patients suffering from IBS are further reduced after treatment with probiotics”.
The authors do go on to point out that there are people who have had healing effects from using probiotics, even against IBS. However, this may be due to the patients receiving different specific species of probiotic bacteria, ones particularly suited to the individual’s needs at the time. (For example, IBS seems to respond favorably to the L. plantarum species, but in this case it is given alone, without other species of LAB.) (Source)
Now let’s have a look at lactic acid itself and how it works with thoses lactic acid bacteria. Fermentation is the process whereby bacteria, fungi, mold, or yeasts, break down carbohydrates (like starch and sugar) into acids, alcohol and/or gas (e.g. carbon dioxide).
When foods are fermented, forming carbon dioxide and lactic acid, the food becomes more acidic, and the oxygen level reduces. This in turn encourages the growth of lactic acid bacteria, and suppresses the growth of other, malignant microorganisms. Examples of such fermented foods include picked foods like sauerkraut and kimchi (lactic acid pickles do not contain vinegar, only salt), dairy products like yogurt and kefir, soy foods like miso and tamari, and even meats like salami.
But lactic acid alone also serves as a safe and natural preservative. After all, one reason humans started fermenting foods was for the purposes of preservation. Lactic acid, because it can kill and suppress bacteria, is commonly used as a safe and effective preservative, often added to packaged foods such as bread, desserts, jams, and olives.
Aside from serving as a preservative, and producing LAB in fermented foods, lactic acid on its own also has health benefits. According to WebMD, lactic acid can strengthen the immune system, help the body to absorb vitamins and minerals, serve an antioxidant function, and protect one from constipation, gut problems, and urinary and vaginal infections. (Source)
I first learned about the benefits of lactic acid from studying the A. Vogel product (from Switzerland) called Molkosan®. Made from fresh milk, with the fat, lactose, and protein removed, Molkosan takes the remaining whey and ferments it with a specific strain of lactobacillus. It is then pasteurized, which kills off the strain of lactobacillus bacteria, leaving only liquid lactic acid.
Molkosan has been used for decades as a health food, mostly because it is rich in lactic acid, which acts as a prebiotic to support the growth of good gut bacteria. One of the principles which Molkosan operates on is this: “In the past, the trend has been to use probiotics for digestion problems. However, the difficulty is that if the internal environment hasn’t changed, probiotics will be killed off just as the original friendly bacteria were…Using prebiotics such as Molkosan to improve the internal environment of the gut increases the likelihood that a probiotic supplement will work well.”
I find that to be a nice, concise way of explaining why probiotic supplements may not be the best solution to a lot of gut problems. So, we see that lactic acid and LAB have a symbiotic relationship. Lactic acid in the human gut produces lactic acid bacteria, and those bacteria are adept at producing lactic acid. This lactic acid keeps the acidity of the gut at the correct level, serving as a prebiotic, encouraging the growth of good bacteria. And, of course, bad bacteria do not thrive in an environment high in lactic acid, especially when there is also a gut full of healthy bacteria to boot. (Source)
(Personal aside: I had a child prone to repeated staph infections on his arms. I tried everything herbal and natural to treat the condition when it arose, to little avail, often leaving me with no choice but to use antibiotics. As you may know, this form of infection is unlike most simple infections, and is very resistant to treatment. One day I was reading the autobiography of Dr. A. Vogel and he mentioned using Molkosan for treating staph. The long and short of it is, it worked. The next time he got one of these infections I used the Molkosan both internally and externally, the infection cleared up, and my son ceased having recurrent staph infections. I do believe that the use of this lactic acid solution topically was an important part of the process, and indeed Molkosan is recommended to be used, diluted usually, topically for a variety of skin conditions.)
As mentioned just above, prebiotics like Molkosan or fermented foods, both rich in lactic acid, improve the environment of the gut, thereby increasing the likelihood that a probiotic supplement will work well. Therefore, it would make sense, in severe conditions (candida, colitis, Crohn’s disease, IBS, mood disorders, etc), or following antibiotic use, that one might take a lactic acid producing product, like LactoSpore. Because LactoSpore (which is not a probiotic bacteria) works by dramatically increasing lactic acid levels, it will ensure the gut environment is suitable for the probiotics being used, so that it will survive long enough to actually colonize.
That being said, LactoSpore is so efficient at elevating lactic acid in the gut, that it creates enough LAB to solve most of these health issues on its own. For example, LactoSpore Supreme (5 times stronger than the original formula), has been found to effectively treat IBS, even without the addition of extra probiotic supplements. (Study; Study)
The takeaway here is that gut health cannot rely solely on probiotic supplements. So, whether or not one is taking probiotics, in order to ensure a healthy microbiome one should also ingest sources of lactic acid, either copious amounts of fermented foods, Molkosan, and/or LactoSpore.
(Note: There is a type of lactic acid that is produced in the body, as a result of physical overexertion. This type is a chemically similar compound to the type that we find in food, as it can form when the body breaks down carbs to use for energy, when oxygen levels are low. However, for our purposes, they can be considered unrelated subjects. Source)